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Mejillas v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 18, 2019

PAUL T. MEJILLAS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Paul T. Mejillas' Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, With Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 21), filed February 28, 2019; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 23), filed April 24, 2019; and Mr. Mejillas' Reply to Brief in Response to Motion to Reverse and Remand (the “Reply”), (Doc. 24), filed May 10, 2019.

         Mr. Mejillas filed an application for supplemental security income on June 21, 2016. (Administrative Record “AR” 161). In his application, Mr. Mejillas alleged his disability began on October 1, 2015, (AR 161), and he later amended his disability onset date to June 21, 2016, (AR 16). Mr. Mejillas claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), high anxiety, and depression. (AR 194). Mr. Mejillas' application was denied initially on November 10, 2016, and upon reconsideration on March 23, 2017. (AR 16).

         Mr. Mejillas requested a hearing, and a hearing was held on February 23, 2018, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ben Ballengee. (AR 28). Mr. Mejillas and Molly Malloy-Kelly, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing, and attorney Michelle Baca represented Mr. Mejillas at the hearing. (AR 28-53). The ALJ issued his decision May 7, 2018, finding Mr. Mejillas not disabled at any time between his alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 23). Mr. Mejillas requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied, making the ALJ's opinion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. (AR 5-9).

         Mr. Mejillas, now represented by attorney Francesca MacDowell, argues in his Motion that the ALJ made the following reversible errors: (1) failed to properly assess the opinion of consulting psychologist Eligio R. Padilla, Ph.D.; (2) failed to include a function-by-function assessment; (3) failed to properly consider Mr. Mejillas' subjective symptoms; and (4) erred by adopting the VE's testimony at step five. (Doc. 21 at 3-21). The Court has reviewed the Motion, Response, Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. (Doc. 16). Because the ALJ erred in his consideration of Dr. Padilla's opinions, the Court finds that Mr. Mejillas' Motion is well-taken and should be GRANTED and this case be REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . . that she has done so, are also grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005). “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when he is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he has a “severe medically determinable . . . impairment . . . or a combination of impairments” that has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year; and either (3) his impairment(s) meet or equal one of the “listings”[1] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five, the Commissioner bears the burden of showing that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Mr. Mejillas claims he was limited in his ability to work due to PTSD, high anxiety, and depression. (AR 194). At step one, the ALJ determined that Mr. Mejillas had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 21, 2016, the amended alleged disability onset date. (AR 14). At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Mejillas has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease; depression; anxiety; and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Id.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Mr. Mejillas' impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926. (AR 15). The ALJ then found that Mr. Mejillas has the RFC to perform light work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 416.957 and SSR 83-10, with the following limitations: he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he should never be exposed to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, extreme cold, or vibration; he is limited to performing simple, routine tasks and making simple work-related decisions; he can occasionally interact ...

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